Spoof site 'became election ad', court told

Last updated 19:31 19/08/2014

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A spoof Simon Bridges website launched last December had allegedly morphed into an election advertisement, a High Court judge has been told.

The Greenpeace website had shown what looked like Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges’ National Party website being engulfed by swirling oil.

But since an election was announced for September 20 a complaint was received about it and the Electoral Commission took the view that the website was caught under the rules that cover election advertisements.

The website is no longer live.

Whether it is in fact an election advertisement is one part of a case heard in the High Court at Wellington today.

Justice Cameron Mander reserved his decision.

The other issue before the judge was whether the Climate Voter website, organised by Greenpeace and five other organisations including the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, is also an election advertisement.

The Electoral Commission says it is. Electoral advertisements are covered by a set of rules that include having a named promoter or authorisation. As the amount spent on the advertisements increases so do the requirements to keep records of spending.

Climate Voter’s lawyer, Matthew Palmer, QC, said it was an issues advocate aimed at informing voters and did not promote any party or candidate. More than 31,000 have signed up on the website.

The lawyer for Greenpeace relating to the Simon Bridges spoof, Isaac Hikaka, said the website had not contained any direct or indirect reference to voting or an election but did raise criticism of a minister. 

It began well before the election was announced and could not change into an election advertisement, Hikaka said.

If it was an election advertisement a lot of advocacy groups would also be caught such as the Sensible Sentencing Trust, the Howard League for Penal Reform, Federated Farmers, Unite Union, and the Taxpayers’ Union.

Unless the law was clear it would have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of speech in a regime where it was an offence punishable by a fine to not comply with the law, Hikaka said.

But the lawyer for the Electoral Commission, Peter Gunn, said the definition of an election advertisement included whether an objective observer would think they were being encouraged or persuaded to vote or not vote for a “type”of party or candidate, by reference to views or positions.

It did not have to say, “Vote for X”, or “Don’t vote for Y”, to be an election advertisement, Gunn said.

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The Climate Voter website did more than simply give information. It advocated for a particular conclusion, he said.

The status of an advertisement could also change. Something that was not an election advertisement before a candidate was chosen to stand for an electorate could become one after the candidates were chosen, Gunn said.

Free speech only became “censored” when the spending cap of $308,000 was spent on election advertising in the three months before an election, he said.


- The Dominion Post

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